When it comes to music and culture, I’ve always been curious and eager to learn. Sit me down with a great musician and I’m dying to learn what that person knows. I’m always particularly excited to sit at the feet of an elder. Elders have taught me that new ideas, especially musical ones, are rarely new, they’re just recycled and given new clothes. So when I hear a person, particularly a critic, say they’re waiting to “hear something fresh,” that to me has always signaled a particular sense of arrogance. There is so much music in this world! Have you really studied and listened to……everything? Forget music from Africa, India, Asia, the Middle East, South & Central America, Russia, Eastern & Western Europe…how about music inside the country in which we live? Do you really know what music in the Appalachian mountains sound like? Do you know what Cachi Cachi music is? Do you really know the subtleties between salsa, cha cha or merengue? You ever heard Mormon folk music? You know what Corrido or Conjunto sounds like?
Yeah, I didn’t think you did.
One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career is being the host of the NPR/WBGO/JALC radio program, “Jazz Night in America.” The show is now in its fourth season and is aired on over 200 stations nationwide. If you’re a listener, you will notice that while the show covers music and festivals in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Ojai, Miami and St. Louis, a large portion of the music comes from the central nervous system of jazz, New York City. Towards the end of our third season, we decided that we would take the “show on the road” in a much different way. Instead of going to a city that is known for its jazz scene, why don’t we take the show to a city that is not necessarily known for its jazz scene and search it out. Since jazz is a National treasure, you should be able to find it anywhere in the nation, right? My role as host would be expanded. I’d be in the trenches interviewing people, playing with different musicians, searching out the jazz history of the town. The town we decided to hit first? What could make more sense than the town they call “Music City”: Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville’s always been an enigma to me. It’s by far to country music what New York City or New Orleans is to jazz. But while Nashville is not known, nor ever has been, particularly known as a jazz town, many of my favorite musicians live there – Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Keb Mo’, Victor Wooten, Jennifer Hartswick and Jeff Coffin. The question we ask in this show?
It’s going to be a challenge writing this blog, because I certainly don’t want to give everything away. You gotta hear and see the show! 😉
Up until the time I started to spend time with and perform with the great bassist Edgar Meyer, I had no real knowledge of country music. As a kid, most likely as other kids in Philly, country music to me meant the TV show “Hee Haw.” Watching Roy Clark and Buck Owens was fun, but it didn’t teach me anything about country music. I guess it could have had I not been a kid simply looking for a good laugh. I also remember seeing the usual-suspect country artists on TV like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell. Charley Pride always stuck out, as I never saw an African-American country music star. But even he couldn’t pique my interest to the point of actually learning about country music. I also had no idea that Ray Charles had been considered an innovator in the country music world. Ray Charles was such an innovator in soul music, it never crossed my mind that country music fans loved hits of his like “Georgia On My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” I’m upset at myself for taking so long to discover his “Modern Sounds In Country and Western.” Talk about a truly groundbreaking record. Whew! Describing Ray Charles as a genius will always be a gross understatement. Later on when I became a professional, I learned about the deep country music roots of jazz musicians like Charlie Haden and Gary Burton, but even after all that, I still didn’t search out any country music. That was a style of music I figured I’d never have to address.
The first jazz musician who ever pulled my coat to country music was Russell Malone. Sometime in the 90’s, he told me what a big influence guitarist Chet Atkins had been on him. I’d never heard a jazz musician cite a country artist as an influence – especially as an instrumentalist. He got me curious enough to listen to Chet Atkins. Russell also urged me to talk to George Benson about Chet Atkins, as George deeply admired him, also. As I did some cursory research on Atkins, I also learned that guitarist Tal Farlow started in the Grand Ole’ Opry. At that point, I was curious to find out exactly what the Grand Ole’ Opry was. I saw it on TV, but I never really knew what it was. It actually started out as a radio show, of which it continues to be 93 years later. The program became so popular among the locals, it was forced to move out of its radio studio and into the legendary Ryman Auditorium where it stayed for almost 30 years until 1974. Now, the Grand Ole Opry resides in its own theme park, Opryland. Now that’s what you call business expansion! The greatest names in country music have played there, got trained there, learned the ropes there. Just like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Opry was fiercely dedicated to its community and its culture….and housed a real tough crowd.
During its hey-day, the Apollo was THE haven for black music and black culture. You heard jazz, soul and gospel. Not so much rock, country, or mainstream pop – except Motown artists, of course. The Apollo represented the community. That’s not to say white artists couldn’t perform there. They by all means did, but they were there playing music of the community. Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and Dave Brubeck were Apollo regulars. Even Buddy Holly played there. (I’m dying to know how he was received.) In terms of being a cultural haven, the same could be said for the Opry. You could certainly be black and play there, but you better be playing the music of that community. Also like the Apollo, they sometimes branched out from their usual programming to mixed results. In 1968, with the hippie generation amassing much of the country’s attention, the Opry decided they’d experiment by booking The Byrds. It didn’t go so well. They performed to a booing, hissing, heckling audience. In 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis played there and did exactly what he was asked not to do – use profanity onstage and play his rock ‘n roll hits. In 1979, country music superstar singer, TV star and Opry booker Porter Wagoner decided he’d really shake things up – almost literally. He booked none other than….(you ready for this?)….JAMES BROWN! Both Wagoner and Brown had to know the first ever r&b booking at the Opry wouldn’t exactly be welcomed with unanimously open arms. Brown wasn’t exactly booed or heckled (even Opry fans had to at least respect his showmanship), but a frenzied, soul-stricken audience they were not. Hats off to the late Mr. Wagoner for indeed shaking things up with that gutsy move. On the other hand, I believe it was the last r&b show he ever booked there. LOL! Hey, you know, life is about risk-taking and changing. While the Opry has remained true to its tradition of presenting the best in country music, the Apollo, on the other hand, has opened its doors wider than ever to all different styles of music. My first appearance there in 2004, I was the musical director for a somewhat unusual Apollo headliner, Carly Simon. 🙂
My first real country music (or more specifically, bluegrass) experience as a player came in 2008 on an impromptu gig with Ricky Skaggs and the Kentucky Thunder. It was a benefit concert for St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa’s animal rescue foundation, ARF. I was there to play a duet set with Bruce Hornsby. We played our fun and wonderfully blurry amalgam of classical, jazz and pop. Until this day, I couldn’t tell you if the crowd dug it or not. Considering the other performers on the bill that night – Skaggs, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan and comedienne Kathleen Madigan, I can’t imagine we were the biggest hit of the night. 😄 However, imagine my surprise when Ricky Skaggs asked me to sit in with him. Bruce was already slated to sit in, but Ricky asked me to come and join in, too. His bassist was an amazing player from Nashville named Mark Fain. I’d met Mark once before and he was (and still is) one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet. I assumed Ricky would want the bass parts doubled, but Ricky asked me to come up front with him and solo. I would be a virtual second fiddle player. “Oh, s***!” is what went through my mind! For the life of me, I don’t remember what song I played with them, but Ricky looked at me and said, “You got it!” I soloed over what felt like a very fast 12-bar blues in G! This was no different than playing an arco solo with Benny Green’s Trio! In listening to the language of bluegrass, however, I knew better than to sneak any tritone substitutions in. I mean, I could have, but….nah. After my solo, playing the I-V repetition on the bass part didn’t seem so strange to do. Playing bluegrass bass has different subtleties from jazz, obviously, but it’s not like I have to completely rethink everything about the basic harmonic function of the bass. I loved it. Ricky seemed to enjoy the experience and even asked me to join him again at a later date. What fun. But still, I only knew slightly more about country – or bluegrass, rather – than I did the day before that gig.
The following year, I got the thrill of all thrills as I got to record with none other than Willie Nelson on his album “American Classic.” It was an album of Willie singing jazz standards. Unfortunately, the standards weren’t done in his signature outlaw country style, they were done in more of a straight, pop-jazz style. It was so great being in the studio with Willie, but I was hoping we could have met him on his musical turf a bit more. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter – we were with a legend. I heard some great stories and got to experience his energy. I hope I get to play with him again one day.
This brings me to Edgar Meyer. Not only has he been one of my greatest inspirations as a musician, but he’s also been a great teacher of bluegrass and country music traditions. When we went on our first duo tour, I asked him to school me on the “real shit.” He decided he’d school me specifically on bluegrass. He already knew that I’d played with Bela Fleck, but he turned me onto Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers (who were labelmates with James Brown at King Records in the 60’s), Earl Scruggs and Sam Bush. I was already familiar with names like Jerry Douglas, Stewart Duncan (who now plays with Diana Krall) and Chris Thile, but Edgar got me to dig deeper. I deeply enjoyed listening to all these musicians. I was feeling the vibe.
When I made a trip to Nashville in 2013, I went to the legendary Robert’s Western World on Broadway Ave. along with Benny Green, Lewis Nash and Chris Potter. We just randomly picked a spot to go into and hear some live music. We got lucky as we heard guitarist Chris Scruggs – the grandson of the great Earl Scruggs. The band was smokin’. Chris’s bassist, Jared Manzo, had a strange contraption mounted just off the side of the fingerboard of his bass. It looked like he was using a drum brush to play it. I kept staring from the audience like, “What the hell??” Turns out, it was a drum skin or pad actually on the bass. He indeed was using a brush to play beats two and four. Dude was playing bass AND drums (sort of) simultaneously! After their set was over, we all had a GREAT time talking with these cats. Jared taught me the history of the mounted-acoustic-bass-drum-pad. It was created by a bassist named Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance. Lightnin’ was a very prolific Nashville session bassist in the 50’s and 60’s. He was also pretty much the house bassist at the Opry. He was Nashville’s Ron Carter, if you will. 😄 Since the Opry didn’t allow drums, Lightnin’ created this mounted drum pad to give the Opry bands a little extra rhythm. Lightnin’ played on almost every country record out of Nashville for almost 20 years. Perhaps his biggest innovation, however, is creating the Nashville Numbering System – a system that allowed musicians who couldn’t read music to follow along.
Man, I love learning this stuff.
As for this recent trip with Jazz Night In America, our first night in town started off with a visit to Rudy’s Jazz Room, a very hip, new jazz club. The best compliment I could give it is that it felt a little like a New York jazz club. Dedicated listeners open to all types of musical expression were in abundance. There wasn’t one group, but five groups performing. This was a showcase for Ear Up Records, a label run by saxophonist Jeff Coffin, a man who many feel is the life blood of jazz in Nashville. Each ensemble played a 20 minute set of daring, original music. Saxophonist Evan Cobb, pianist David Rodgers, saxophonist David Williford, the duo of bassist Jon Estes and saxophonist Douglas Mosher, and bassist Jonathan Wires all played exciting sets. Again, I can’t give everything away in this blog, but the music was great. 😉
Sunday was MAD busy!
On Sunday afternoon, I moderated a panel discussion at the Nashville Jazz Workshop – a non-profit organization run by pianist Lori Mechem and her husband, bassist Roger Spencer. It’s a big building (I’m guessing just over 5,000 square feet) with multiple rooms for its many jazz education programs and rehearsals. It also contains a performance space, which also makes this, along with Rudy’s, one of Nashville’s preeminent live jazz venues. On the panel with me were Jeff Coffin, saxophonist Rahsaan Barber, guitarist Lindsey Miller and violinist….oh, pardon me…FIDDLE player, the great Joe Spivey of The Time Jumpers, one of Nashville’s most popular bands. For about 90 minutes, we talked about life as a musician in Nashville. Stay tuned for the video.
After we left there, I had to hit one of my favorite places, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the Broadway strip. Timbo, Whitney and Victor were working behind the counter that day. As a kid growing up in Philly, my two favorite record stores were 3rd Street Jazz & Rock and The Sound of Market Street (which, funny enough, was not on Market Street 😄). Both of those record stores, like all great ones, didn’t just simply have employees, all the people who worked there were also historians. Most great record stores have salespeople who not only can tell you the ins and outs of all the music you’re buying, but they can also lead you through history and tell you what you might also like based upon what you’re buying. Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop is no different. “Timbo”, in his ten gallon hat, greeted me with a “Howdy, partner!” Seriously. 🤣 As I browsed the entire store – the CDs, records, books, clothing, autographed 8×10’s of all the famous people who visited and/or jammed there, it really felt like the country version of 3rd St. Jazz & Rock. The music that was playing over the system was super hip. It was a fast, swinging thing. All of a sudden, a four-bar drum break happened. This drummer had amazing chops! Almost sounded like Max Roach. I went to Timbo and asked what it was. He said, “My friend, you are listening to the Texas Troubadours! Greatest Western Swing band ever, led by the man this store is named after, Mr. Ernest Tubb.” Ernest Tubb was one of the most successful and respected musicians/bandleaders in the history of country music. His radio show, “Midnight Jamboree” was broadcast out of his record store in front of a live audience for about 50 years. It was actually a jam session where the greatest names in country music – Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis and Dolly Parton, would drop in and jam. Though that show is no longer broadcast out of the record store, it’s still on the air! It’s second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry for longest running American radio show. Jennifer Herron is the host.
As for the store, I can guarantee Timbo, Whitney and Victor combined, know as much, if not more, about country music than ANYONE in any museum in the world. They were so cool, personable and helpful. If you don’t know much about country music, Ernest Tubb Record Shop is the school you should attend.
Early in the evening, we went back to Rudy’s to cover The Barber Brothers. Saxophonist Rahsaan (who’d been on the panel with me just a couple hours before) and his trombone-playing brother, Roland, played all the “grits and gravy” jazz that I don’t get to hear too often on a regular basis anymore. Rahsaan was honking through that horn so much, he should have walked the bar! As for Roland, if I may, I’ll give you a food visual of his trombone playing – his playing was like braised short ribs. Ha’ mercy!
Later that evening, we would cover an EDM group, Big Gigantic. I wondered why we were covering them, particularly since they were not from Nashville. It was just a stop on their tour. It made more sense as I found out my friend and trumpeter/vocalist Jennifer Hartswick would be a special guest on their set. I called Jennifer to get the skippy on Big Gigantic. From the description she gave, it sounded like they had a little Skrillex vibe happening. Very unlike Skrillex, however, along with the laptops, one guy played saxophone, the other played drums. This sounded interesting. I told Jennifer we were coming to cover the gig and she said, “You should sit in!” I’m always down as long as it’s ok with the bandleader. She assured me these cats would give a thumbs up, and they did. Sitting in with an EDM band in front of almost 2,000 hyped-up, screaming millennials was not originally on the to-do list, but it was great! Turns out, I actually knew one of Big Gigantic. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and I played together many years ago in Boulder, CO when he was a member of The Motet. Small world!
On Monday afternoon, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to interview its curator Michael Gray and Dr. William Levine, English professor and Nashville music historian. We had an amazing two-hour discussion about the history of jazz and country in Nashville, and many musicians like guitarist Hank Garland, who were skilled in both genres. Needless to say, we veered off into my other love, r&b and soul. Even became familiar with the early r&b/blues recordings of John Coltrane as a sideman with Nashville vocalist, Christine Kittrell. You will enjoy that conversation.
Later that evening, I had one of the best times of my life as we covered the band that Joe Spivey’s in, The Time Jumpers. They are to Nashville what the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is to New York. People come from miles around to take in a Monday night of country standards, gospel and jazz played by some of the most incredible musicians you ever want to hear. The Time Jumpers often accompany Vince Gill, though he wouldn’t be present on this night. All of the musicians are highly trained, highly skilled improvisers. Getting to sit in with them was an all-time musical highlight for me. I’m bursting at the seams to give you more details, but again, you’ll see the video. My main man Edgar Meyer and his wife Connie were there to take in the fun as well.
When we were first planning this trip, we were hoping to have three things to do on Tuesday, our final day. That morning, I recorded an NPR Night Owl segment with the great Keb Mo’ and Jennifer Hartswick. Keb is another one of my favorite musicians who conjures up images of pork rinds and chicken gizzards with hot sauce. As for Jennifer, I still can’t quite figure out how a product of St. Johnsbury, Vermont (?!?!?!) could have so much genuine soul. It’s mind bending. You’ll dig the blues we played.
The second event sadly couldn’t come together in time. There was hope that the one and only Dolly Parton would join me in a duet at the legendary RCA studios. The original plan was to find a legendary country music artist to join me in a duet session. To me, there’s no one more legendary than Dolly! She was out of town and couldn’t join me, but her manager actually responding to our request made me feel so good. Dolly, I’ll be back! 😜
After a lunch break, we headed over to the home of pianist Beegie Adair. Beegie is the matriarch of jazz and country piano in Nashville. She’s been living there since the early 50’s and has been a part of the country music studio scene as well as the jazz scene ever since. Spending 90 minutes with her was an enlightening experience. Getting facts and insights from a person who was around when these mythical stories happened is what I live for. She was a gracious host and it was a pleasure to speak with her.
We closed out our final night in town with an obligatory visit to a Nashville institution, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. “Hot Chicken” is a Nashville specialty, like a cheesesteak and a hoagie is to Philly. Hot Chicken is chicken marinated in buttermilk then fried in a pasty hot sauce that’s so tasty, it makes you – as they say down south – wanna slap yo’ momma! That chicken was mean, Jim! There’s lots of Hot Chicken places in town, but it’s unanimous, Prince’s is THE place.
Going into this trip, I had high expectations. I knew I was going to be “wowed” with information and discoveries. I get such great excitement meeting great musicians and new people. Traveling to a major city as a radio and webhost and not as a performing bass player was new. My mind and body’s conditioned at this point to always be in “soundcheck/warmup” mode at around 4 or 5pm and prepared to hit a stage around 8pm. This time, I had to be up at the crack of dawn to go over interview questions and get make-up for my camera shot. (No, not quite, but you know what I mean! 😜) For this trip, at 4pm, I was not at a soundcheck. At 8pm, I was not onstage. I was a shade out of my element, but it was great! To be “out of your element” is scary for many people. The unknown or the possibility of confronting beliefs that could be shattered are debilitating for many. Fortunately, the unknown or the unfamiliar doesn’t scare me….within reason. 😜 As a musician, country music is the one style I’ve never had too much experience with. These four days in Nashville absolutely blew my mind. I learned so much about the people, the places, the things, the music history that make that city so loved. I wish it were a mandate that somehow all Americans must do a culture exchange. I also wish musicians were government-appointed ambassadors of peace. I mean, we already are, but it should be official.
Thanks, Nashville. See y’all soon, ya’ hear? 😜